Lois Henry

Saturday, May 31 2014 07:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Here's how to heal killers long before they can act

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By Lois Henry

While the post-mass-killing tragedy debate loudly rages, yet again, about gun control, sexism and how law enforcement deals with the mentally ill, I'd like to draw your attention to a quiet little program here in Kern County.

It's been ongoing since 2009 and the statistics it has generated so far are promising.

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Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

The program, a cooperative effort between Kern County Mental Health and about a dozen outlying schools, doesn't really have a name other than "prevention services."

It aims to teach mostly middle school kids to find appropriate ways to deal with anger, depression, anxiety and home life troubles.

You know, so they don't haul off and hit someone or, heaven forbid, get a gun.

The goal of the program is to reduce behavior problems in school.

The greater benefit, of course, is that schools churn out emotionally healthy young people who respect and care for their fellow human beings.

I like the program for several reasons.

First, it uses a variety of approaches at the various schools.

We're talking about little people here, so one size will certainly not fit all.

It also has a component for parents so they can learn how to better deal with their own frustration when their budding teen starts acting like, well, a teenager.

And the program has a number of ways to try and measure how its doing based on absences, suspensions, expulsions and children's surveys asking about substance abuse and whether they've been in a fight in the past year. It was paid for by Kern County Mental Health using Proposition 63 (the tax on millionaires passed in 2004) funds.

I say the program "tries" to measure its outcomes because, again, dealing with people, big and little, can be difficult. The number of children served was small, not every school employed exactly the same program mix and some parents may not have consented to having their children tracked.

Even so, the outcomes so far are promising.

The program provides four basic types of services depending on the needs of the child and whether the school wanted the service. There were individual therapy sessions, parent programs, student support groups, and aggression training.

Overall, each type of service showed a slight drop in both suspensions and absences except, curiously, for kids who had the individual therapy sessions. They had slightly more absences, though their suspensions also dropped.

But the more interesting stats were found by school.

At the schools that dove into the program whole hog and used as many services as the program offered, the numbers were especially heartening.

Arvin's Haven Drive Middle School saw a nearly 15 percent drop in absences between the 2010 and 2012 school years. And a nearly 30 percent decrease in suspensions in that time.

The news was even better at Almond Tree Middle School in Delano, which started the program a little earlier in the 2009 school year.

Between 2009 and 2012 absences dropped by nearly 32 percent. Suspensions went from 16 percent to 11.4 percent and expulsions dropped from 2.8 percent of the student population in 2009 to 0 percent in both the 2011 and 2012 school years.

Not all schools were so successful.

For example both absences and suspensions went up at El Tejon Middle School as well as Frazier Mountain High School.

But, again, not every school took advantage of the full complement of services available.

I spoke with the interim director of Kern's Mental Health Department, Bill Walker, and he liked what he's seeing with this program as well.

And, like me, he believes such early intervention is desperately needed to try and turn the tide of society.

"Culturally, we didn't seem to go down this path in our past, and not that far in our past," he said, referring to mass killing sprees.

We're seeing people who are so much more angry and so disenfranchised they don't see people around them as fellow humans who deserve the kind of respect and attention they themselves so crave, he said.

"They're so enamored by the effect of their actions."

The violence may seem random and chaotic, he said, but it's not. The steps to that end were all calculated, Walker said.

"But how do you go back up that chain and see the warning signs early enough to prevent it?"

We're hearing lots of back and forth on what law enforcement could have or should have done when officers visited the killer before he took out six young people in Isla Vista. But even if they'd hooked the killer up when they made their first visit and had him hospitalized, he could only be held so long.

Something had to have been done long before he ever set foot in Isla Vista.

Walker and I agreed the only long-term answer is to get into the heads of our youth and teach them early that anger, depression and anxiety are normal emotions.

Dealing with them must never involve a weapon.

"We've got to embed in people's mindset that this is not the way to go," he said.

It's not a quick solution. It's not an easy one. And there's no lobby protesting for or against it.

But I'm with Walker: Teaching children how to relate human to human is the key.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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